If you had to explain your research topic to your grandmother or your little sister, how would you do it?
I am a computational chemist, so I spend most of my time modelling systems for other people. My PhD is on semiconductors, which are used in computers or for making lights. But it’s not limited to that, we could actually model anything.
In your research motivation you have written that you initially got into chemistry because you were fascinated by the smell of your mother’s perfume. What is the one smell that you would like to have created?
I’ll tell you a story first. There is deodorant company which claims to attract females with their deodorant. They are not wrong, they are legally allowed to say it, because one of the compounds that they put in there is a sex pheromone, which does attract females, but they don’t tell you which sort of females. So it actually turns out to be female cockroaches. And I found that hilarious, and I thought I am interested in attracting insects. I went into making pheromones for wasps, because in Australia they had problems mating which is why they might have gone extinct – so we helped them mate. But these things don’t smell to humans. The molecules I was interested in making was the sent of lemon. This seemed very trivial because lemons are everywhere, but in fact it is far more challenging, because lemons are acidic. So, you can’t simply take a lemon and rub it on your skin or put in into a perfume. Most times, it is quite hard to produce a perfume that actually smells of the ingredients that it’s made from – like my mother’s perfume.
You also write that you always had a feeling of underachievement. How did you cure that?
Going to the lab and making things involves a lot of variables. On a rainy day, humidity is higher and experiments would go differently than on a sunny day. I lost my motivation for this when I produced a smell that didn’t smell nice at all – most times you don’t know why this happens. It might be that 95 times you make something you did not want to have, and accidently in five out of 100 times, you get what you actually were trying to make. You can’t predict the outcome. That made me feel as though I couldn’t make a step forward. And now, as a computational chemist, I solve problems for people so that they don’t have to feel like I did.
Solving other people’s problems – don’t you miss solving your own scientific ones?
Sometimes I still work on my own stuff – for example I am interested in removing impurities from wine. But the main work is helping other people and that is rewarding to me. And at the same time this means you stay sharp, as you never get too narrow.
Even in this conference talking to people I am more interested in what they can’t achieve that they want to achieve – because that’s usually where expertise as a computational chemist comes through.
What is the one thing you would like to find out before the end of your scientific career?
At the end I want to produce a piece of work about which I can say, “this was the right question to ask”. It is not about the answer, but about asking the right question. If you don’t answer it, you might give seven other people a job by asking a challenging question. So before I pack it in, I’d like to definitely ask one good question – just one, and I’d be happy.
How would you draw the place where you have the best ideas?
Christopher Hendon has two places where he has the best ideas: One is an airplane, where he spends much time anyway flying home to Australia from university in the UK home. The second place is a pub, where he likes chatting with people about different topics – and sometimes discovers great new approaches while talking about milking cows for example.